April 30, 2012

USP Atwater warden retires

There's a change in leadership at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater. After more than three years in the position, Warden Hector Rios Jr. retired and worked his last day Monday.

ATWATER -- There's a change in leadership at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.

After more than three years in the top job, Warden Hector Rios Jr. has retired, having worked his last day Monday.

Rios, 50, said that after 30 years of working in corrections, it's time to move on.

"It's been a good ride, it's been an outstanding ride here," he said. "It's been a very, very challenging, but rewarding experience, regardless of the critics."

Last month, Associate Warden John Bell took over as acting warden for a stint while Rios was away from his post, but prison officials wouldn't give any details on why Rios was away.

A member of the correctional officers' union said it was the union's understanding that Rios had retired suddenly with a "cloud over his head and an allegation out there that he was being investigated."

Though Rios couldn't be reached for comment last month, he said Monday that he was away for personal reasons.

On Monday, Donald Martin, American Federation of Government Employees Local 1242 president and chief executive officer, didn't say much about Rios' retirement and wished him well after a long career.

Rios said it was his choice to leave.

"I'm volunteering to move on," Rios said. "I told them from the beginning of the year, January, that this is going to be my year -- 2012 -- that I'm going to retire."

Soon, a new warden -- Paul Copenhaver -- will take over. Copenhaver is the warden at the federal prison in Mendota, said Kristi Rodriguez, public information officer at USP Atwater.

Until then, Associate Warden Craig Swartz will assume the role of acting warden, Rodriguez noted.

Rios said that he's made the institution safer for staff and inmates during his time at USP Atwater.

Rios became warden after the death of correctional officer Jose Rivera, who was stabbed to death in the prison by two drunken inmates. Rios began making changes as soon as he took over, increasing security checks on inmates.

Since then, Rios has gotten a lot of criticism from correctional officers about his management decisions, but others think Rios has brought the prison a long way since the death of Rivera.

Joe Dylina, a 90-year-old retired corrections veteran, has toured USP Atwater several times with Rios and thinks he's done a lot to make the facility safer.

"The inmates respect him and most of the officers do," Dylina said, adding that Rios gets involved with his officers and helps with basic operations at the prison -- something most wardens don't do.

As of Monday, there were 1,395 inmates at USP Atwater.

Regardless of any accusations made against him, Rios said he has a good relationship with his staff members, and one of the hardest parts of retiring is leaving them behind.

"All I ask my staff to do is give me an honest day, and the ones that don't give me the honest day are probably the ones that are throwing everything at me, because I have to make sure that we do the right thing for our taxpayers -- we're public servants," Rios said.

In 1982, Rios started as a correctional officer in Texas. He came to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1988 as a correctional officer and worked at 16 institutions, the last four as a warden.

In a couple of weeks, Rios plans to move back to his family in Colorado, where he said he already has a couple job offers.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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